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Facebook gave contract workers access to inboxes and they used it to snoop: Report

Some of the workers who were hired to look into user complaints about Facebook Marketplace ended up prying instead.

Credit: Unsplash

Facebook’s contracted workforce violated the privacy of its users by exploiting the unfettered Messenger access provided by the company to scrutinise frauds on Facebook Marketplace, according to an investigation by ProPublica. The 400-strong workforce was employed by Accenture on behalf of Facebook to address user complaints and review listings flagged by its automated systems, the report added.   

These workers, reportedly paid low wages, were spread across four countries — the US, Ireland, India, and Singapore. They were assigned more than 600 complaints or SOS calls made by duped users every day, ProPublica reported. Some workers, in an attempt to spy on former romantic partners, read messages sent and received on Facebook Messenger, the investigation revealed. These workers were later fired, many former and current Accenture employees informed ProPublica.

In the past, Facebook has been accused of privacy violations, antitrust issues, unfair content moderation, among others. Facebook’s poor track record on privacy issues, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, has led to a dedicated Wikipedia page separate from its own page. 

Key takeaways from the ProPublica investigation

The findings were part of a broad inquiry by ProPublica into the growing number of scams on Facebook Marketplace and their impact on victims. Facebook Marketplace is an online marketplace where Facebook users can buy, sell and trade items. The company does not charge listing fees.

  • Unnamed contract workers that they were never able to stop scams and got involved once someone had been targeted. 
  • Their job was to ban scammers and restore hacked Facebook accounts to their actual owners.  
  • The inbox access was supposed to be used to evaluate if an account was using the same suspicious message to different prospective buyers or sellers or directing them off-platform to continue the scam.
  • One of the workers said that users would be shocked if they were to know the extent of access they had and that they did not need such “overwhelmingly intrusive access”, the news report stated. 
  • Workers alleged that they were not given any data protection training. 

Checks and balances employed by Facebook

ProPublica said that workers would be cautioned if they strayed from their task at hand and used the access to snoop on people not relevant to complaints. 

  • The system would warn workers in case they checked the inbox of someone in their own friend network.
  • A pop-up window would appear if the contractor attempted to access the account of high-profile individuals such as politicians or celebrities.
  • Facebook employees would be notified if contractors attempted to access their Messenger inbox. 

Facebook’s response 

A Facebook spokesperson divulged that the access to Accenture analysts has been revoked now. They could view Messenger inboxes in the past, but now they can only view messages exchanged on the Marketplace.

“We have protocols in place, in accordance with local laws, that limit what Marketplace messages can be reviewed, and have a zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized access,” the spokesperson said.

The company also asserted that the 400-person Accenture workforce is not the total number of people working to protect the Marketplace.

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Recent concerns around Facebook’s products

Ray-Ban Stories: Ireland’s Data Protection Commission expressed its concerns regarding Facebook’s new wearable technology product, Ray-Ban Stories, a pair of glasses that allows a user to record short videos and take photos for posting on social media. They said that the glasses do not clearly intimate the people around that they are recording at that moment. 

Instagram’s impact on teenagers: Internal research conducted by Facebook revealed that a large number of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, trace a significant amount of anxiety and mental health problems to Instagram, the Wall Street Journal said in its report. The company did not release these findings to the public. 

XCheck: Another Wall Street Journal report found that high-profile users on Facebook were exempt from some or all of the social media giant’s rules. A company programme known as ‘cross-check’ or ‘Xcheck’ reportedly allowed millions of VIP users to post on the platform unchecked by Facebook’s Community Standards. The company also misled its Oversight Board, telling them that Xcheck only impacted ‘a small number of decisions’ when questioned about whitelisting practices. Xcheck was initially intended as a quality control measure for action taken against high-profile accounts. 

Facebook monopolistic practices: The United States Federal Trade Commission on August 19 filed an amended complaint against Facebook in the agency’s ongoing federal antitrust case against the company. The complaint alleged that Facebook resorted to a “buy-or-bury” scheme to maintain its services’ dominance. It unlawfully acquired innovative competitors with popular mobile features that succeeded where Facebook’s own offerings “fell flat or fell apart,” the FTC said. 

Instagram for kids: When Facebook announced plans for developing Instagram for kids, a bipartisan group of attorneys general from forty US states wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking Facebook to abandon plans to develop a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13. “Use of social media can be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, who are not equipped to navigate the challenges of having a social media account,” the letter argued. The company announced that it is pressing pause on the plan. 

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Written By

I cover several beats such as crypto, telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I will be loitering at my local theatre and consuming movies by the dozen when I am off work.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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